(Corrects spelling of Cornyn in 14th and 15th paragraphs)
By Todd Melby
MINNEAPOLIS, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Democrat Al Franken will be declared the winner of the tight U.S. Senate contest in Minnesota, emerging from a ballot recount with a slim margin over Republican Norm Coleman, state officials said on Sunday.
But Coleman, the incumbent, has asked Minnesota’s supreme court to require that a few hundred additional absentee ballots be included in the recount — and he could then ask the court to investigate the contest all over again.
“At the moment, Franken has a 225-vote lead,” after the weekend counting of what were deemed the last uncounted absentee ballots, said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat who oversaw the process.
Ritchie said unless the supreme court acts on Coleman’s request and orders more ballots to be counted, he will reconvene the state’s Canvassing Board on Monday to certify Franken as the winner of the Nov. 4 contest.
Even so, Coleman’s campaign said it will likely challenge the result, which would require the state supreme court’s chief justice to appoint three judges to investigate its claims.
Hundreds of absentee voters were “disenfranchised,” other votes were double-counted, and still other ballots that went missing were counted anyway, Coleman’s campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said in a statement.
“We remain convinced that this process is broken, and as a result, the numbers being reported will not be accurate or valid ... (It) clearly means that a contest is the only likely remedy to ensure a fair outcome,” Sheehan said.
Franken, 57, is a well-known satirist who wrote for and starred on NBC television’s long-running comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” and more recently hosted a liberal radio show before running for the Senate from his home state.
Coleman, 59, just completed his first term that he won by defeating Walter Mondale, the former Democratic presidential candidate who stood in for Sen. Paul Wellstone. Wellstone died in a plane crash during his 2002 reelection campaign.
The recount of some 2.4 million votes cast for the pair has swung back and forth over several weeks. Coleman initially held the edge, but his narrow victory margin necessitated the recount under state law.
The Canvassing Board sifted through hundreds of ballots contested by the two campaigns.
“The recount has been done so precisely, and so transparently,” it would be difficult to envision a challenge succeeding, Ritchie said.
Senate Republicans have pledged not to seat Franken provisionally while the race is still in doubt. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York urged that Franken be seated, which would expand the party’s majority to 58 of the 100 members.
But Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas issued a sharply worded statement saying “Sen. Schumer’s exultations are premature to say the least.”
“There is the pending Supreme Court case and likely election contest that will ultimately decide, consistent with Minnesota law, who won the election,” Cornyn said.
President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat in Illinois is still in limbo. The Senate’s Democratic leadership is promising not to seat Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointee, Roland Burris, due to the taint of corruption charges hanging over the governor. Among those are charges are that he tried to sell the seat for campaign cash or jobs. (Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Chris Wilson)